Rowena felt slightly nervous as she entered Ani’s house. She didn’t know how to behave when you visited someone because whenever she had been on a royal visit, everyone had been eager to please her and do things for her. Did the same thing apply here?
‘Take a seat, you must be exhausted from your journey.’ Ani motioned to some chairs at a large wooden table in the kitchen, the first room they walked into. It was a pleasant room, not very big but homely, with a fire blazing away in one corner, pots and pans hanging from the ceiling and the smell of food wafting around the room. ‘Let me get you some tea,’ she said, bustling around, putting the kettle on the stand over the fire and looking in jars for tealeaves. ‘So how was your journey?’
'Fine,’ Fialka said roughly. ‘I picked Ena up yesterday. Wandering around in the middle of the road she was. Said she wanted to get to Peria so I decided to take her along with me and she could pay me back by working on my stall.’
‘You should get some permanent help Fialka,’ Ani said, taking the kettle off the boil and pouring the water into cups. ‘I think there’s too much for you do be doing it all alone.’
‘I’m not that infirm yet thank you Ani,’ she replied indignantly. ‘When I can no longer load the cart or set up my stall, then I’ll consider it.’
‘But now you don’t have Jakem, and of course we lost Kane in the war, Gods rest their souls, you shouldn’t have to be on your own. You could come and live here with me.’
‘And sell the farm? No thank you, I would rather stay where I am.’
‘Who is Kane?’ Rowena asked as politely as she could as Ani handed her a cup of tea.
‘Kane was Jakem and Fialka’s son,’ she replied.
‘And your fiancée remember,’ Fialka pointed out loudly.
‘Yes but my loss was nothing compared to yours. I can’t begin to contemplate how hard it must have been to lose your only child.’
‘Well we have to carry on. We all have our burdens that we must bear.’ She took a long sip of her tea.
Ani was very different to Fialka. She seemed to have a very patient temperament, taking Fialka’s harsher comments with hardly the bat of an eyelid. She was incredibly pale and slender, her arms and legs were so thin they looked like you could snap them and her skin gave her a slightly ill appearance. Her hair was an unusual flame red colour, tied back in a long plait, but strands had escaped to frame her face and stick to the back of her bright green dress. But she shared the same green eyes Fialka, youthful and sparkling, completely without cares.
‘So why are you wanting to come to Peria then Ena?’ Ani said, changing the subject.
‘I’m trying to get home. I’ve been away for a long time and now my father is dying so I’d like to be there when he does go.’
‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ Ani said, reaching across the table and clasping Ena’s hand. ‘Is there nothing that can be done?’
‘He’s an old man and is very ill. I’m not sure if there is anything that can be done.’ Rowena smiled sadly at Ani, grateful for the warmth of her hand on top of Rowena’s.
‘Then I hope his passing is peaceful,’ she said, squeezing her hand. ‘Oh my, it’s gone dark so quickly,’ she observed out of the small window behind Rowena’s head. ‘It’s time to pull the curtains.’ As Ani began bustling around the kitchen again, Rowena stayed seated next to Fialka, unsure of what to do with herself.
‘When will we need to be up tomorrow?’ Rowena asked Fialka.
‘About two hours before sunrise so we can go and set up our stall,’ Fialka said matter-of-factly. ‘And given how hard it was to wake you this morning I suggest you get an early night.’
‘Of course,’ Ani said. ‘I’ll show you to your room.’
‘I don’t need a room,’ Rowena protested. ‘You didn’t know I was coming and I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you in any way. I don’t mind sleeping in a chair by the fire if that is easier.’
‘Oh stop playing the martyr and go to sleep,’ Fialka said from her chair.
‘It really is no trouble,’ Ani said a little kindlier. ‘I always have a spare bed made up, just in case.’ She led Rowena up a small flight of wooden stairs and along a narrow corridor to a room at the end. ‘It’s not very big but I hope you will find it comfortable,’ she said, opening the door.
She was right. The room was hardly bigger than a cupboard, with the tiny bed taking up most of the space in the room. But that didn’t bother Rowena. She had no belongings to store while she was staying and didn’t need the extra space.
‘It’s wonderful, thank you Ani.’ Rowena felt a surge of warmth towards this woman. She found it so admirable that she was living alone in a large city, something that would be frowned upon back home, and she was surviving. Rowena wished she had the skills and the courage to do that, but unfortunately, she feared she had neither.
‘I will lend you a dress for tomorrow,’ Ani said, looking for what seemed like the first time at Rowena’s clothes. ‘I’m not sure the customers will react well to a woman dressed in men’s clothing.’ Rowena blushed at that, hiding behind her hair.
‘You’re being so kind to me. I’m not sure how I can repay you.’
‘You don’t have to,’ Ani said sweetly. ‘I like having company. I don’t get a lot of it, so it’s nice whenever I have visitors, even if they are unexpected.’ She gave Rowena a peck on the cheek. ‘Good night Ena and sweet dreams.’ Ena stood in the doorway, watching Ani as she walked back along the corridor and down the stairs.
When Rowena entered the room she found a candle waiting for her on a small table beside the bed, which she immediately lit. She pulled off her shirt and trousers and loosened her corset before climbing between the sheets. I’ve been so lucky, she thought. I’ve met so many kind-hearted people, who have been willing to help me. I must be blessed. She snuggled down inside the sheets, already feeling warmer, and blew out the candle. She was so tired from her day of travelling that she was asleep within moments.